There are many different cyber threats that keep business owners awake at night, from increasingly believable phishing attempts to sophisticated ransomware capable of silently encrypting data stored on all networked computers.
However, one particular cyber threat still flies under most organization’s radar even though most IT professionals have been ranking it as one of the top security issues for years, according to Cloud Adoption Practices & Priorities Survey Report.
We’re talking about the so-called advanced persistent threat (APT). Let’s take a closer look at what makes APTs so dangerous and explain how you can protect your organization against them.
What Are Advanced Persistent Threats?
APTs are defined as continuous and sophisticated hacking techniques whose purpose is to gain access to a system and remain inside for a prolonged period of time. To better understand APTs, it helps to break down the acronym into its parts:
- Advanced: APTs are executed by highly skilled hackers who are familiar with the latest technology and have the ability to exploit zero-day vulnerabilities that have yet to gain the attention of less advanced hackers.
- Persistent: Most cyber attacks are like flash floods. They leave just as quickly as they appear and cause a lot of chaos in the process. On the other hand, APTs tend to go undetected for long periods of time, and they take even longer to develop and deploy.
- Threats: Just like all other cyber threats, APTs threaten organizations on many levels, from their ability to keep business-critical systems running to their reputation among customers and partners.
For the most part, APTs share the same goal: steal the organization’s valuable information. In the past, attacks of this kind were typically carried out against large enterprises, but the cybercriminals behind them have been shifting their focus toward smaller and smaller organizations.
Today, even SMBs with just a few employees must face the very real possibility of encountering an APT, and it helps to know how a typical APT attack works.
How Does a Typical APT Attack Work?
As we’ve explained, APTs are characterized by their advanced and persistent nature. As such, they work somewhat differently than most other major cyber threats. Here are the most critical stages of your average APT:
- Planning: Just like Hollywood criminals planning to rob a bank, individuals, and groups behind APTs first probe their target to learn everything there’s to know about its weaknesses.
- Obtaining access: Once cybercriminals know the easiest way in, they do what needs to be done to circumvent their target’s defenses without being detected.
- Establishing command and control: The next step is to gain control of the compromised network. Depending on how much control the attackers need and want, this step may take months and involve techniques such as spear-phishing and password cracking.
- Data exfiltration: After weeks and possibly months of work, cybercriminals are finally ready to steal sensitive information.
- Ongoing presence: If data exfiltration was completed without detection, then nothing stops the attackers from maintaining a presence on compromised machines.
How to Defend Against Advanced Persistent Threats?
Fortunately, there’s a lot that organizations large and small can do to stop APTs dead in their tracks, and some of the most effective defenses are also basic cybersecurity practices that everyone should follow.
Prevention: Security Awareness Training
Data breach statistics reveal that human error is responsible for more than half of all breaches. Whether it’s the use of weak passwords or the inability to recognize phishing messages, there are many ways employees can make it easier for cybercriminals to obtain access credentials.
Security awareness training can turn regular employees into the first line of defense against commonly used cyber attacks, helping them stop APTs dead in their tracks. For such training to be effective, it must be performed regularly and by someone with first-hand experience with the subject matter.
Detection: Network Activity Monitoring
From early stages, APTs may generate unusual network activity, abnormal login attempts, and other anomalies that can be easily missed unless you’re actively looking. The good news is that highly effective network activity monitoring solutions are readily available and possible to implement without much effort.
When combined with tools such as antivirus software, endpoint protection, and Next-Generation Firewalls, they represent an integral part a multilayered defense approach against APTs. If you’re unsure which tools can benefit your organization, we recommend you contact a managed IT services provider to receive expert guidance.
Response: Incident Response Plan
Even with diligent security awareness training and best-in-class technologies in place, your defenses may still be breached by a remarkably skilled group of cybercriminals, especially when an employee error opens the front door into your network for them.
That’s why you should always consider data breaches unavoidable and plan for “when” not “if.” A comprehensive incident response plan can help you minimize the damage caused by an APT and stop further information leakage as soon as possible.
Advanced persistent threats are no longer something only large enterprises need to worry about. Cybercriminals have realized that SMBs can also be lucrative targets, so the clock is ticking for small business owners to strengthen their defenses and prepare for the worst.
If your experience with advanced persistent threats is limited or non-existent, you should partner with an experienced managed cybersecurity services provider, such as Aligned Technology Solutions.